Crazy spring work / by Jerry

Crazy spring work

It’s a very exciting but very busy time of year with all the breeding species returning, so here’s a quick update on what’s going on on Bird Island.


Giant Petrels

As detailed a few entries back, working with the giant petrels is one of my main tasks. From 10th September I’ve been out every day walking back and forth over the study area, looking for new nests and recording information on the breeding birds. The northern geeps have almost all laid now, over 300 nests marked and pairs recorded, and the southerns are about to start.

Not my favourite nest location to check, though I can’t fault the view.

It’s great to see such a range of personalities in these birds; from nervous young ones who defend their patch with extreme aggression to calm old ones who tolerate your presence. Some of the latter are older than me while there’s a few new breeders who, although 6 to 8 years old, are on their first egg.

The advantage of nesting early is that the chicks will be born when food is at its most abundant as there will be plenty of vulnerable young seals and penguins. The disadvantage is that there can still be a bit of snow.

Checking all these birds has meant a few long days in the field, especially when I’ve a few other bits and pieces to do. Up to seven hours with only a brief lunch break and then two hours of data entry in the evenings is not unusual. That’s the nature of the job – when the work’s there you do it, when it’s not you try and relax a little.

A cold day on the geep round.


Penguins

Preparations for the return of the macaronis has focussed on setting up the weighbridge – the extremely clever system that weighs each and identifies each tagged individual on its way in and out of the colony. There’s a whole system of electronics that were taken in at the end of winter that needed to be reassembled and tested. After a few little issues that seems to be working and I’m excitedly waiting for the first birds due back this week.

Gentoos returning from the ocean to their breeding grounds.

The gentoos have been around in varying numbers all winter, often hanging round their nests and adding a few stones to it, but once the snow and ice disappeared they started building with real purpose. They collect as many pebbles as they can, supplemented by bits of bone and tussac and make a pile before pushing with their feet to hollow it out into a bowl in which they lay two large, white eggs. The first few are on eggs now and at two of the colonies I’ve mapped a combined 70 nests that I’ll follow the build up of. From this we’ll establish the peak laying date and hence when I need to do all the colony nest and chick counts.

Copulating pair of gentoos. There is a lot of bill-tapping and the male (on top) patting the female’s flanks with his wings.


Albatrosses

The wanderer chicks are very well developed, with many showing only the remnants of their downy chick feathers. They’re stretching their wings out and flapping hard and it’ll not be long before they’re jumping up in the strong winds, getting a bit of a lift before fledging properly in a month or two.


Cosy pair of grey-headed albatross.

The smaller albatrosses – the grey heads, black brows and light mantled sooties - are all back around their colonies too with the former already on eggs. Jess, the albatross assistant, has been out every day recording ring numbers of the birds and marking each of the nests.


White-chinned petrels

One of the joys has been the return of sound to Bird Island – the singing pipits, honking albatross and chattering petrels. While it’s great to see the white chins soaring around the colonies during the day it’s hearing them through the open window when I go to bed at night that’s the real treat.


Seals

Cian’s daily leopard seal round continues and although there’s only one regularly seen lep around at the moment he’s given us a lot of special moments. Not least recently when he made a spectacular meal out of a king penguin.

Gill thrashing an unfortunate king penguin.

While we’ll be waiting another month for the first seal puppy we’ve got our first baby in the form of an elephant seal pup. Several in fact. They’re not regular Bird Island breeders but we’re lucky enough to have one very close to the base. We noticed it almost as soon as it was born, before the hungry skuas noticed in fact and started hanging around, trying to pinch the placenta and afterbirth. In a day or two the pups have put on so much weight already it’s incredible.

Shortly after being born the first puppy screams for attention while skuas and a giant petrel wait for anything worth scavenging.

An elephant seal family? Or a mum and pup trying to get away from a huge, randy male?

There have been a handful of large male elephant seals hanging round the last few weeks and we’ve seen a few confrontations and short fights in the water. Seeing them rear up and bellow is an amazing sight. When they utter their deep, bass roar it reverberates off the hills and seems to shake the whole base.

Bellowing male elephant seal.


Visitors

The American ship the Nathaniel B. Palmer came by with a group installing a GPS station. This was on one of the wettest days of the year and they had to navigate round a huge male ellie seal that had taken up residence on the jetty. But everything went smoothly – we all pitched in with carrying scaffolding, batteries, electronics and tools up the hill. The route up, normally a stream, had turned into a bit of a torrent and despite the best efforts of our waterproofs there was no chance of staying dry. Those at the top did valiant work, staying up there all day until the job was done while we were able to show off a few penguins and albatrosses to the others.
Despite our initial reservations about talking to other people after seven months of the same three faces, communications proved easy and they were a very friendly bunch. They endeared themselves even more by bringing a few trays of fresh fruit, veg and eggs. Colourful, crunchy and tasty peppers, tomatoes and bananas! You know you’re missing out when celery is seen as a treat.

Jerry Gillham